Mmegi Blogs :: Pinning down the shifting phonetics of English
Last Updated
Friday 19 January 2018, 17:45 pm.
Pinning down the shifting phonetics of English

One of the things that make English difficult to learn is the curious spelling of words like ‘paradigm, viscount, thought’, etc. But where these words relate to proto-terms (i.e. words that hark back to a now-lost mother-language we once all spoke), Setswana is able to pin down their primordial phonetics.
By L M Leteane Fri 29 Jul 2016, 12:52 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Pinning down the shifting phonetics of English

This week, we address various phonemes idiosyncratic of English in particular, that can be unravelled by, and agreed to, Setswana. Phonemes are small sets of basic units of sounds, different for each language, by which utterances are represented. One example the dictionary gives us is ‘bit’ and ‘pit’ (viz. ‘banana’ and ‘panana’). This entails a b-to-p interchange we have already addressed in preceding articles, so the phonemes are b and p. Naturally, all this implies and posits that Setswana betrays vestiges of this primordial protolanguage, and that it is one of the closest surviving languages still very close to it. 

Compound letters to express phonemes can contrive to confuse the budding etymologist, and we will go through a few of these in this article. Last week, we compared the Setswana term fulaka (‘graze widely’) and ‘forage’. We noted therein that ful related well with ‘for’ due to  the well-known  l to r sound-shift, and that aka and ‘age’ entailed the Setswana tendency for g (as in ‘goat’) to be hardened to a k: for example, in Setswana, ‘Kalanga’ is simply ‘Kalaka’. But what I did not further explain, though it seemed evident, was that the age in English is pronounced eij rather than aga. So, we can discern straightaway that the English vowel ‘a’ changes from an ah (or eh) sound to an ei-sound due to the ending ‘e’. This something we all learnt at primary – if not pre-primary – school and so I will not go into any detail about that phonetic mutation which, in English, afflicts all the vowels. Rather, I will concentrate on the g that sound-shifts to j because it is a sound-shift that can blur the similarity between cognate proto-terms (that, is, proto-terms that appear to have a common origin). Such mutations, I must further note, are the chief reason and culprit why linguists in general are taught, and thus cling to, the false premise that any similarity in both sound and meaning between words in Indo-European languages and any other language family is merely ‘coincidental’ and should be disregarded.

A rather difficult proto-term to discern, simply because it involves not only the ah-to-ei sound-shift, but the g-to-j sound-shift as well, is the term ‘cage’. Dictionary etymologies will tell you that the etymon (root-word) for the term is the Latin cava (a ‘pit’ or ‘hollow’). Naturally, this is where ‘cave’ (English), and gafa (Setswana) – also a ‘pit’ or ‘hollow’, as in le-gafe (armpit) – is derived. Evidently, animals and birds were originally kept in natural, cave-like enclosures, and when metal cages came about, the term did not change with times. But while one can easily understand that f and v are phonemes, it may be rather more difficult to discern how the utterance ‘j’ in ‘cage’ sound-shifted from its v or f-based proto-term. This, I discern,


followed a traceable path. Gafa comprises an f that, we have seen, often sound-shifts to h – even within a language – as in fula/hula (graze) and heta/feta (pass). Thus, gafa became caha. But that was not all. H and g, we saw last week, are also phonemes, so another sound-shift to g occurred (caga). Lastly, the g was affected by the sound-change to j brought about by the introduction of an e…a penchant most probably picked up from French. 

The morpheme aka – which is also a common suffix meaning ‘occurring widely or consistently’ – as in thulaaka, sotlaaka, bitsaaka (Setswana), which suffix relates to age in English, as in ‘pillage, forage, rampage’, etc., also relates to English words ending in ace. Thus, sebaka in Setswana relates to ‘space’ in English, with, of course the well-known b-to-p sound-shift. The suffix aka can also translate as ague in English, thus ‘plague’ originally meant, in Latin, ‘to wound [widely, randomly]’, which in Setswana is bolaaka (which can mean ‘wound’ or ‘kill’ in Setswana…and that is what a plague does anyway). The well-known b/p phonemes, of course, should also be duly note here.

Another set of sounds that, in English, are also afflicted by the appending of an ‘e’ entail the sound-shift of ‘i’ from ee to ai.  In a prior article, we discerned ile (ah-il) as being akin to ile (ee-leh) in Setswana. The suffix ile, we noted, means ‘having come to be’, as entailed in ‘tactile, mobile, docile’, etc. The connotation of ‘having transformed’ is clearer in Setswana: ‘senyegile’ is ‘having become spoilt’, latlhegile is ‘having become lost’, etc. ‘Ile’ can also mean ‘having gone’, thus the French term soleil (‘sun’) can be deciphered as the ancient phrase zu-le-ile: ‘darkness has [now] gone.’ As such, the term ‘ductile’ transliterates to thukhuthile in Setswana, with the well-known ah-to-oo sound-shift we discussed recently in this column. This requires further explanation. The term derives from the Latin ducere (to lead [away]). A ‘duct’ is therefore something that draws away…mainly fluids like air and water. Thukhutha, on the other hand, has acquired the meaning of ‘abduct’ (lead or take away)…which, in any case, comprises the term ‘duct’.

Now, moving away from vowels affected by the appendage of ‘e’, the reader will have noticed that I made frequent use of the term ‘well-known’. Obviously, the k in ‘known’ is not enunciated, but such un-enunciated consonants often betray an ancient way of pronouncing the word, which Setswana can help unearth. Indeed, the proto-term of ‘know’ is kanoha (note: oha and ow have labial – lip-enunciation – similarity), and its morphemes are ka (through) + ana (‘spread(ing) out’, as in anama), thus ‘unfold, open up’…which definitely relates to ‘know’ – and a paradigm of which is kanoka (‘open up, examine’). Next week we discuss more phonemes.

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